Play is a complex behavior. All mammals, and many other animals, engage in play behavior as an important part of their development. That is especially true for humans. We often discount play as not work, but research supports the idea that play is critical to healthy human development. If you deprive people of play, particularly in early development, pathologies develop. This section on play language presents some of the common terms used when talking about play. We welcome suggestions for additions and changes.
Play that allows the player to explore their world nearly unrestricted from adult-manufactured rules and rigid expectations for how to play. Adventure play has a long history. You will often hear older adults say “Well that’s how we all used to play” and they are basically right. Adventure play is more accepted in some communities or places than others.
Environments designed to support adventure play. These play spaces can look very different from one another but they tend to have some commonalities that include:
- Loose parts or junk (but that’s in the eye of the beholder)
- No, or few, manufactured pieces of fixed equipment
- Carefully orchestrated oversight by play workers that minimizes the imposition of rules or expectations into the play experience
Adventure playgrounds are more common outside of the United States but the ideas behind adventure play is gaining acceptance. The Children at Play Network supports the development of adventure play in this region.
Evidence-Based Research on Play
Any study that seeks to quantify and explain some aspect of play. The Children at Play Network seeks to base its programs and actions on evidence-based research when possible and to support that research at the regional level.
Family Nature Club
Family Nature Clubs are organized opportunities for families to gather in nature for exploration and play. Some Family Nature clubs are hosted by organizations on a regular basis and some are grassroots efforts hosted by individuals or groups of friends.
Play structures that are fixed in place as something to play upon. Fixed equipment is often associated with directed play in that the equipment telegraphs to the player how to use the equipment. Swings direct toward swinging. Slides direct toward sliding. Children sometimes use fixed equipment designed for a specific safe activity to do something altogether different from the intended use. Fixed equipment is sometimes used as a play stage for some type of play.
Regular forest experiences and unstructured time in nature can have dramatic and profound influences on child development.
Free play differs from other types of play in that it is unstructured and initiated by the player. It’s the type of play we naturally gravitate toward when we can do whatever we would like.
Free Play Day
Free play days are scheduled opportunities for children to engage with loose parts, natural materials and other children in an environment that encourages the child to explore play on their own terms. Think of them as moments when children simply do what they desire in the moment.
Hazards are aspects of the play environment that can cause harm without providing benefit. They are hidden or difficult for children to recognize or assess for themselves. They are intentional or unintentional design elements where the potential for harm is greater than the considered potential for benefit. (See also Risk)
A type of adventure playground where discarded materials are provided as objects of play. Think back to childhood where perhaps a vacant lot in your neighborhood was where all the detritus of your community collected as children gathered it for play.
Loose parts are things children play with rather than something they play on. Loose parts may include ropes, tree cookies, sticks or boxes. Loose parts engage a child’s imagination and support creative and cooperative play.
Natural materials include wood, water, plants, stone, air, rope, canvas, sand, mulch, pebbles, mud, etc. Many, if not most, play environments are built out of materials of technology such as plastics, composites, metals and artificial assemblies of materials.
Play experiences that seek to connect people to the natural world. It most commonly takes place outside, with natural materials, loose parts and in natural or naturalistic environments.
Nature Play Environments
Play environments that support nature play. These environments are outside, and most often use natural materials such as logs, rocks, trees, sand, water and gardens.
New Nature Movement
This is a phrase brought forward by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods among other books. It refers to a growing international movement that values all the various strategies that seek to connect or reconnect people with their natural environment.
The work of an individual, group or organization to envision, define, articulate and plan for any new type of program or environment that supports play. Play planning is work that is supported by the CAPN. Play Planning Grants are available that support planning and first efforts. Play Planning Grants »
The CAPN also provides consultation on play planning, including the facilitation of first conversations for organizations interested in improving outdoor play environments. Contact us »
The universe of play is big and complex. When people use the word “play” they are often referring to only one aspect of play. Understanding the many different types of play and how they provide benefit to people engaged in that play is to understand the play spectrum. (See Play Types as an example.)
Because play is complex, people who study play often divide play behaviors into common types of play. Although there is no universal agreement on the types of play, one helpful categorization of play types was proposed by Bob Hughes in his publication A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types. Bob is a play theorist and advocate for free play. His sixteen types of play are:
It is important to note that when actually observing people at play it is almost always difficult to clearly identify the play experience as cleanly belonging to any one category. People often engage in multiple play types simultaneously. Group play makes this even more difficult.
Play workers are individuals who are trained in how to provide rich free-play experiences for children in a way that values first the perspectives of the person playing. In some countries the study of play is a formal area of study.
In the context of play, risk is a part of the design of a play environment or play experience that engages and challenges children, supports growth and development and where the benefit of engaging in the risk is greater than the considered possibility of injury. Providing appropriate opportunities for risk is beneficial. (See also Hazard)